Everybody into the Pool! (The Romance of the Vine)
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I spent a recent morning at the Cornflower Nursery in Elk Grove, California, with Professor Andy Walker of UC Davis, who has been very graciously advising me on the rather ambitious (no kidding) program of growing grape vines from seeds. ((It is perhaps over-reaching a bit, but I feel the need to explain the joke embedded, as it were, in the title of my piece. This phrase is said to be the exhortation of last resort for overwrought Social Directors at Catskills resorts of a certain era. (My father himself served in this capacity approximately 70 years ago.) )) We were there to inspect the progress of the grenache seedlings that had germinated a few weeks earlier, which now, with many having just formed their first true leaves, were ready to transplant into 3-inch pots. Andy was there to offer his judgment on the best criteria for discarding or retaining the little seedlings for further study and ultimate plantation. ((Chlorotic or misshapen leaves, three cotyledons or other anomalous appearance, damping off—all to go to the slag heap of viticultural history.))
This particular set of seedlings had come from seeds we had harvested from several different grenache selections last year, but the vines themselves were all “self-crosses;” i.e., the plants were self-pollinating, and therefore could be said to be genetically less interesting than their parents—more prone to disease, weaker growth, and hidden defects. And yet it seemed (and still seems) to be an interesting experiment to see what the effect of extreme genetic diversity of a given grape variety in a vineyard might do. ((Strictly speaking, the offspring of grenache crossed with itself is no longer grenache, but is mostly very grenache-like.))
Andy has been gently urging me to hybridize vines from multiple varieties rather than simply collect the seeds from individual ones. I was originally quite keen to do this, but when I learned about the enormous hassle factor in the hybridization process—collecting pollen, emasculating the male flowers with surgical scissors (!), but most of all, the need for very intensive and precise record keeping ((Historically not a great organizational strength chez nous.))—I wimped out and went the route of simple seed collection. I have since seen the error of my ways; one undoubtedly gets healthier and potentially more interesting vines from hybridization, ((Perhaps the lack of varietal identity can be in some sense a positive attribute for the stated aim of this vineyard, as will be discussed infra.)) and I’m keen to begin the breeding, possibly in the near coming weeks if I can decide on which varieties are to be crossed.
This really gets to the very nub of what precisely am I trying to accomplish in this new project. I have had some nagging doubts about the potential brilliance of vinifera hybrids. My deepest fear is that even with the very best of intentions, and breeding two interesting, even noble varieties, I would end up with a new variety, or more accurately a range of offspring, that had few of the redeeming qualities of either parent. ((I could not seem to get the idea of pinotage (pinot noir x cinsault) out of my mind. Two exceptional and noble grape varieties gave rise to a very strange and somewhat unprepossessing offspring.)), ((Andy reports that the primary “varietal” characteristics of the hybrid derive from the mother, and the growth habit and overall appearance of the vine from the father. Further, he suggested that what one achieves is sort of bell-shaped population—most of the population pretty much resembles the rest, with a few outliers possessing brilliant, desirable characteristics (but what might those be, and would one have the wit to discern them?), and a few with undesirable characteristics (sterility being the trait most likely to get one kicked out of the forward march of viticultural history).)) I had read reports that both T.V. Munson, the legendary Texas grape breeder, whose efforts with American grape species had literally saved the European wine industry from the great phylloxera epidemic, as well as the late Professor Harold Olmo of UC Davis, had both mentioned how difficult it was to find a real stand-out in grape vine progeny, saying essentially that one had to kiss a lot of frogs to find a real prince.
I shared with Andy my concerns and asked him pointedly, “So, what can we say about the wine quality of vinifera hybrids? Are they really that much stupider than their parents?”
He then said the most extraordinary thing, so startling that I didn’t really grasp its significance until after we had gone our separate ways that morning. ((Andy did seem to endorse the overall philosophical premise of this project (the economics of it another question altogether): minimally, wine quality will be good (or, all things being equal, as good as it would be from a given varietal selection, which itself is fraught). Above and beyond, there would remain the possibility of enhanced wine complexity, owing to the genetic diversity of the plant material, as well as potentially a greater degree of drought tolerance due to the (conceivably) greater degree of geotropism exhibited by seedlings relative to vines grown from cuttings. It is really a subtle shift of thinking that enables one to think of diversity of planting material, whether in the rootstock or the fruiting variety, as either a positive or negative attribute of the whole proposition.)) “In fact,” he said, “if the selection of parents is well done, the wine quality potential will generally be superior in the hybrid to that of its parents.” ((The qualification is big enough to drive a Humvee through it, and really is at the nub of this meditation, which is really: What is meant to be accomplished through hybridization?))
Now, I should have been listening very, very carefully at that point, and maybe even should have had a tape recorder, because (pace Andy) this did not seem to jibe with what I had heard or read before. Indeed, the case for improved vine quality or vine health for grape hybrids is totally consistent with everything that is known about “hybrid vigor,” ((My own daughter, Amélie (as she now prefers to be called), is a perfectly demonstrable example of this phenomenon. )) the invigoration of the stock through the introduction of new genetic material to the pool. ((On a rudimentary level, wine quality might well correlate to vine health, as far as it is correlated to more consistent fruit set, looser clusters (yielding less bunch rot), lack of debilitating virus, etc. Certainly one very interesting prospect of hybridizing grapes is that grapevine viruses do not appear to be transmitted to seedling progeny. Marvelous oddball varieties such as pignolo or ribolla gialla, which tend to be riddled with virus, might make a great contribution to a succeeding generation of hybrids, or perhaps could even be improved through self-crosses.)), ((Undoubtedly, potentially a great boon to the wine industry at some future date (long after I’m gone), in virtue of the accidental expression of particularly cool and useful genes (drought tolerance, disease resistance, etc.).)) But I’m quite certain that we were indeed talking about “wine quality” and not vine quality. ((This is a potential source of confusion if one is talking to a native German speaker about his “winyards.”))
I asked him specifically about what criteria one might look for in the grapes themselves as indicators of wine quality—perhaps smaller berries, smaller, looser clusters, greater or lesser degree of seededness (ergo more tannin), greater anthocyanin concentration, phenological appropriateness of the variety to the site (enough days of sunlight and adequate heat to ripen the grapes and bring them to a reasonable balance of potential alcohol, acidity, etc.).
“I think that Munson and Olmo were likely talking about the progeny of self crosses, and not true hybrids,” I recall him saying.
The question is stilling nagging at me: what could Andy have really meant by “wine quality?” More importantly, what should I be thinking about as desirable characteristics in these new, as yet unnamed varieties? It is now everything I can do to resist calling him up at this precise moment to grill him further. But instead, I’ll just let myself live with a certain ambiguity for a moment, and use this as an occasion to meditate on what might really be meant by “wine quality;” a vinous Gedankenexperiment, if you will. What follows are fragments of an imaginary conversation with Professor Walker:
Okay, Andy, I don’t wish to be obtuse, but why do you imagine wine quality of well-bred vinifera hybrids to be superior to the already pre-existing varieties? ((One might easily descend into an Escher-like or perhaps Heraclitean paradox with this question. The extant vinifera varieties, noble and less so, are themselves hybrids of pre-existing vinifera varieties, so at least at some point in history, some forward progress was made. The old “new” vinifera grapes, both “noble” and base, were likely the result of intentional breeding experiments done by monks, likely looking at criteria for retention rather different from those of the modern breeder, i.e., they were looking for grapes most likely to celebrate God’s exceptional goodness. But how might one explain the existence, at least teleologically, of the burger variety, or, say, mammolo?)) For one thing, why haven’t we seen the emergence of a slew of great new grape varieties in modern times? There may be a couple, I’ll grant you—scheurebe for one, and perhaps albarossa, a putative cross of nebbiolo x barbera. ((This itself is a bit controversial, and perhaps there is a lesson somewhere. Neither the scheurebe nor albarossa likely derives from the parentage to which it was originally attributed. Recent DNA analysis confirmed that scheu is a cross between riesling and an unknown mother. Albarossa seems to be derived from barbera and nebbiolo di dronero, (a lesser variety), not nebbiolo, as originally believed. Maybe Nature is always determined to have the last word, showing Herself to be cleverer in what She can conceive than in what we can.)), ((There are many growers in the Langhe who are pretty excited about albarossa. I’ve only had it on a couple of occasions and found the ones I tasted to be a tad rustic – rich in color, hence high in anythocyanins, thus quite unlike nebbiolo and lacking (or so it seemed) in the aromatic complexity of Its Nebs. Maybe it is a mental trick, but wines made from deeply pigmented grapes often strike me in some sense as “overachievers,” promising more on the palate than they can deliver on the nose, and sometimes just a bit coarse.)) I’ve only tried incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13 once (a cross of riesling and pinot blanc), but it was eminently forgettable, apart from its too cool for school, minimalist nomenclature. ((Deriving from the vineyard, row, and vine number where the particular selection was located; if a grape vine could wear designer shades it would be incrocio Manzoni 6.0.13.))
The indefatigable Dr. Olmo had a very long career traveling the world looking for exotic plant material (he was once characterized as the “Indiana Jones of grapes”). But (with all due respect to the late plant breeder) how much has the world of wine benefited from say, symphony, ruby cabernet, or carmine? ((Grenache gris x muscat of Alexandria, carignane x cabernet sauvignon, ruby cabernet x merlot, respectively.)) In Dr. Olmo’s defense, you could say his work was undoubtedly directed toward solving particular problems: the creation of an aromatic variety for a warm climate, the breeding of a table grape with characteristics that made it more commercially attractive, overcoming specific disease issues, etc. Perhaps in the era in which he worked, grape growers and winemakers in California didn’t really have deeply elaborated ideas about wine quality, and were undoubtedly primarily focused more on productivity than on the suitability of this or that variety as a vehicle for the expression of minute nuances of difference in differing sites—that is to say, the glorious articulation of terroir.
It seems intuitively obvious that certain genotypes of grapevine have greater or lesser potential for wine quality, but how to characterize these elusive criteria? Might it not perhaps be more a question of the degree of congruence of a particular variety or set of varieties to a particular site, with all of its unique challenges? Could you use hybridization to tweak what you imagined was a reasonably good fit to your site to make it even more congruent? And while we might pretend to be “empirically objective” or even “scientific” in our assessment of what might be the most appropriate grape variety to a given site, at the end of the day, there will be some wine produced by an actual vigneron. And while aforesaid vigneron—that would be moi—wants nothing more than to greatly delight his customers with the most extraordinary nectar, he also wants to personally be nothing less than out-of-his-mind crazy in love with the wine that he is producing. We all hold within us certain images of idealized Platonic forms; in some sense, this vigneron might consider those elements of a wine most compelling to him, and meditate on how he might conjoin them in a seamless way.
Can you really say that there is anything “wrong” with a specific variety that needs to be fixed/improved through the process of hybridization? ((Maybe barbera, with its virtual crushing acidity grown on almost any site, could be slightly ameliorated were it hybridized with a lower acid grape.)), ((In fact, one might claim that it would make some sense to self-cross pinot noir for your new, untested site in the New World, not so much to find a “better” pinot noir, but something pinot noir-ish better suited to one’s particular site, i.e., with more favorable ripening characteristics, better acidity, etc. But you have to remember that if it is pinot qua pinot that you’re after, these offspring will virtually all be less interesting than the Ur–pinot, and further, riddled with all sorts of genetic defects, some overt, some latent. If one needs to somehow “fix” the pinot, it really begs the question as to whether another grape variety (a standard one or even a hybrid) might be a better match for the site.)) Is pinot problematic because it is not dark enough in color? How can it be said that pinot could be better than it is if it is already (arguably) perfect, or at the very least capable of expressing something like perfection? ((The same can certainly be said for riesling, perhaps in spades. To my knowledge, no riesling hybrid (and there have been scores) has ever been shown to be superior to riesling itself.)) Pinot and nebbiolo are what they are and we love them because they are somehow just so utterly different from everything else, and in the instance of nebbiolo, just so perversely strange. Changing them would no doubt create something far less interesting, so they are clearly “superior” varieties, but in what sense?
There are so many aspects of this problem that tend to make my head hurt, and so many apparent logical paradoxes, that it seems impossible to reconcile them all. We have to slow down the discussion and really think hard about what constitutes “greatness” in wine. Cabernet, merlot, and the other bordelais cépages can produce wines capable of “greatness” because they have a lot of structure, i.e., they’re rich in tannins and anthocyanins, with good acidity, and are thus capable of long aging and the development of complexity. Further, they are not overly susceptible to vine disease. On their own, they can be relatively simple and monotonic; generally speaking, blending (in the cellar) will enhance their complexity. ((ChÃ¢teau Cheval Blanc, a wine that in some years I would consider to be more or less perfect, is a blend of merlot, cabernet franc, and malbec. (Look, Ma, no cab sauv!) But imagine what it might be like if it were composed of a population of vines made as crosses from these components. You would lose, at least for a generation or two, the received wisdom of where each “variety” might optimally flourish—merlot on clay, cabernet franc on limestone, malbec on gravel—but might this re-ordering yield a new fractal pattern of even greater complexity? My wild-ass intuition is that you could potentially build an extraordinary wine somewhere by selecting merlot as the pollinator “male” contributor for clay soils, and maybe cab sauv or malbec for gravelly soils with the conjugate bordelais cépage as the pollinee. Alternatively, if you were going to compose a “RhÃ´ne” blend, something on the order of say, Le Cigare Volant, you might choose grenache as your male parent (good drought tolerance) and syrah as your female parent (poor drought tolerance owing to minimal stomatal regulation, but brilliant flavor and aroma). (N.B. Syrah is one of the few vinifera grapes that are identified by the feminine definite article.) Important note to self: this is something you should definitely try.))
But what if it is not the grape varieties themselves that are the repositories of greatness, but rather that they’re merely the vehicles of transmission of the greatness (or put another way, eloquence) of a given site? Intuitively this seems obvious. Cabernet sauvignon is unquestionably a “great” grape but makes a fairly miserable wine grown in overly fertile sites, and grown on its own can be overly expressive in its flavor profile, drowning out other nuances. Clearly there are other elements at work that enable a great variety to express its greatness.
Maybe the better question to ask is how one would go about looking for varieties or combinations of varieties that would potentially be the best transmitter of one’s given terroir. To answer this question, I’d like to think about what makes pinot noir and nebbiolo (and of course, riesling) so great (on the right site) and in some sense unimprovable upon. It’s not that they have more tannin and anthocyanins than anyone else, nor that these elements are particularly well balanced. (Nebbiolo has lots of tannin but is relatively low in anthocyanins; pinot noir is low in both; and of course for riesling, being a white grape, the question is moot.) It’s not that they are (riesling excepted) particularly versatile as far as site selection. For me, pinot noir and nebbiolo are unquestionably the greatest grapes because they produce wines of utterly haunting complexity. The scent of a great pinot expresses elements of wild fruit that enchant us (maybe a function of its great genetic complexity), ((The pinot noir genome is said to be as long as the human genome, i.e., prodigious.)) and capture elements of earth and mineral that perhaps give us a sense (maybe literally) of groundedness. Wines made from these grapes on the right sites are also exceptionally ageworthy, enabling them to develop ever more complexity. And lastly, these wines have a unique, almost feral, savory element (truffles, humus)—a quality that pinot shares with nebbiolo—in which we perhaps see, or more accurately smell, ourselves. ((I am not particularly adept in biochemistry, but would lay any amount of money that there are molecules in both pinot noir and nebbiolo that are identical to those found in human sex pheromones.)), ((All produce wines that one is capable of vertiginously losing oneself within; they are in a real sense soulful, due to their being such a powerful reflective lens.))
It is beyond the purview of this little article to elucidate the mechanism of the phenomenon of “minerality” in wine. ((This is perhaps wine’s central mystery. There have been some attempts to account for this phenomenon, which is generally acknowledged to exist, but the explanation for its mechanism is not at all straightforward, and for now is largely theoretical.)) We don’t know exactly how it comes about or even precisely what it is, but some wines seem to exhibit a strong anti-oxidative potential even (in the case of pinot noir) with the relative paucity of the usual anti-oxidative suspects. ((Additional note to self: go see Dr. Vernon Singleton at UC Davis absolutely ASAP. Dr. Singleton, who studied wine phenolics for years (he is undoubtedly Dr. Phenolic), most likely has an opinion on the subject, but likely no one has asked him for it.)), ((It is incontrovertible that minerals are themselves synergists to the anti-oxidative system of both plants and animals.)) I am convinced that complexity in wine—its ability to change, evolve, kaleidoscopically unfold, chameleon-like—is directly linked to the presence of minerals in the soil from which the grapes derived (and of course the presence of a salutary soil microflora able to extract aforesaid minerals). I have suggested elsewhere that even grapes that are far less genetically advantaged than, say, pinot, are capable of demonstrating great complexity if they are derived from exceptionally mineral-rich soils.
So, pinot and nebbiolo and riesling are all grapes that wear their minerals well. ((Higher acid wines are also often characterized as “mineral” wines, though it is not clear precisely what this relationship might be. Higher acid wines (like Riesling) are often capable of longer aging; possibly this has something to do with maintaining a fair bit of molecular SO2 as with old school German SpÃ¤tlesen and Auslesen, but equally likely it is a function of their mineral aspect. (Note that Txakoli, a very high acid wine, is not a particularly great ager.) )) Maybe (or maybe not) they are particularly well adapted to mining minerals from the soil ((They all interestingly share a very vigorous growth habit, perhaps suggesting that they are at the same time very deep rooters (“As above, so below.” —Parmenides), but this is a bit conjectural. Come to think of it, cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay also have a very vigorous growth habit.)) and particularly well suited to expressing this mineral note in the elaborated wine. ((One would definitely have to characterize chardonnay and chenin blanc in a similar way. Neither grape is particularly interesting in the absence of a strong mineral element, but grown on chalk, they absolutely sing.)) I’m not an especially astute observer/student of grapevine morphology or physiology, but it strikes me (maybe more as an intuition) that grape varieties that are either particularly pulpy or possessing very small berries, i.e., with relatively little juice in comparison to rest of their mass, are the ones more likely to present this “mineral” aspect. Further, grapes grown on a limited water regimen (dry-farmed, deep-rooted) in low fertility (low nitrogen) soils will also experience this concentration effect and be far more expressive of terroir.
One further thought on the subject of the grapes that I love. As I’ve said, they all fuse several disparate elements—fruit, earth, and savoryness, as well as something like a distinctively human element. ((Not riesling. Riesling is utterly otherworldly, an immortal grape. It looks down upon us mortals (with a steely gaze) from Apollonian heights.)) But also, these varieties are truly self-sufficient, i.e., they generally do not benefit from the addition of extraneous grapes—that just seems to muddy the waters. While they all possess varietal character that is easily recognizable, this character is relatively mild—transparent, you might say—to the degree that it allows for the clear expression of a strong mineral aspect in the wine. But it is the utter brilliance of these grapes when they are paired with the noblest of vineyard sites (Musigny, Bussia, Scharzhofberger, etc.) that really throws a pall on any desire I might have to produce a varietal Pinot noir, Nebbiolo, or Riesling wine. Without question, in the absence of hundreds of years of iteration and observation, one will never come close to achieving anything like the felicity of the marriage between grape variety and site that has historically been achieved. And that Platonic image of what the Grape is able to achieve (and what one’s own does not) will haunt one’s days.
So, maybe certain grapes concentrate minerals better than others, maybe it is a function of their vigorous growth (rooting) habit and relatively small berry sizes, maybe also their relative giftedness for biosynthesis. (Maybe that’s linked with the complexity of their genome.) The real question is whether hybridization might be a strategy to enhance these attributes, or whether it’s essentially an interesting intellectual exercise with a rather unforeseeable outcome.
But if one is looking for true originality in a New World wine, it would seem that hybridization may well be the most rational way to proceed. I’m not sure if “rational” is really the precise word to describe what it is I propose to do, but rather it seems that hybridization, even with its radical uncertainty, creates the most likely opportunity for real uniqueness in a New World vineyard, and that its pursuit is quite rational. There are still a few elements I am taking on something like faith, viz., the belief that the site in San Juan, or at least parts of it, is capable of expressing a strong sense of place if farmed appropriately. Further, I do believe that a diverse population of a coherent family of grapes will likely create a kind of complexity that could not otherwise be achieved. Lastly—and this is maybe the greatest leap into pure faith: the lack of varietal distinctiveness in this imagined vineyard will in some way allow other attributes of the wine, namely the qualities associated with the site itself, to express themselves in greater relief.
If I were to go out on a limb and imagine what Andy was thinking about wine quality, it is not unreasonable to imagine that hybrids created from varieties with the attributes of the gross signifiers of “quality”—small berries, non-juiciness, some discreet aromatic potential, seededness and a strong life-force (the primal impulse to Go Deep), could in some sense be more interesting than their forbears, especially if you were to consider them as a population. The “greatness” of these hybrid grapes might be analogous to the greatness or greater harmony that comes from blended wines, where any single varietal is just too simple and likely unbalanced. Maybe the “problem” of brilliant grapes like pinot noir is just that they are too brilliant, i.e., so particularly and well adapted to a given site that they suffer greatly when they are moved away from their home.
It is clear that hybridizing vines needs to be done with an aim to solve a particular problem or adapt to a particular set of circumstances, or perhaps even to satisfy the aesthetic whims of the hybridizer. As I’ve written elsewhere, I am not looking for the next great grape, nor even for the perfect variety or varieties for San Juan, although that would be good information for my successors. I am looking to make a wine of complexity, balance, and originality, expressive of the site on which it is grown, and a wine that will delight me—when it is not driving me insane. I am optimistic that I am on a path to achieve a plurality of these ends.
26 Responses to “Everybody into the Pool! (The Romance of the Vine)”
This might mark me as being hopelessly naive, but it seems to me that any time a hybrid is created to better express the individual properties of where it is grown (the terroir if you will), it could be greater than its parents – and if it is successful, then it IS a great grape. But I tend to include more than minerality in my definition of terroir; I want to taste the climate the grape was grown in; how much water it drank (here dry farming is ideal), how much sun shone on it, how hot its days and how cold its nights. In vin d’effort so much of all these nuances are lost. I think that being hidebound by definitions of varieties of vinifera is silly; we wouldn’t have all the varieties we have if it wasn’t for people hybridizing and picking the best grapes for their own particular place.
Then again, I like symphony.
Thanks for your very thoughtful note, and you are of course completely correct in suggesting that any variety that makes a more congruent fit to the exigencies and qualities of the site at which it is grown is certainly in some sense “greater” than its forebears. Agreed further that the nuances and characteristics of “vintage” as you are suggesting make for a greater frisson of aesthetic delight than a wine that has been so carefully controlled and held within strict stylistic parameters. You have closed the loop in my logic by pointing out the obvious: the human aspiration for excellence, however it may be perceived (grapes that ripen most of the time, grapes that are not too sour, aren’t plagued by disease, are incredibly delicious) is the source of the great diversity of grapes that we currently enjoy. Jury is still out on symphony for me. But must keep an open mind.
Ah, pheromones. If only the late, great Australian vigneron/surgeon/all-round polymath Dr Max Lake were here to leap into the pool, buck-naked and eager (as ever). Max long held that cabernet (his fave grape) had a pheromone analogue in androstenone; and that champagne thrummed with notes of isovaleric acid and pyrroline – which, according to the good doctor, has ‘spermous’ notes.
I just took a brief moment to read up on Max Lake; what an extraordinary human being he was! I’m so sorry I never had the opportunity to meet him; I’m sure that we would have either rowed or hit it off famously, or alternately both. Certainly Dr. Lake did not seem to have many inhibitions about speaking his mind, and undoubtedly managed to offend sensitive souls from time to time. Can’t speak to his tasting note on champagne, but certainly Nature does tend to repeat Herself at least molecularly. What is so extraordinary about grapes and wine is that it really does tend to recapitulate so many aspects of the human condition – from its/our chemical composition, to the dramatic arc of its/our lifespan. (A great wine or grapevine should live approximately as long as a human being.)
While I love the idea of invoking Plato’s Forms into the winemaking (and grapegrowing process), I think it is well worth noting that there is (philosophically) a predecessor to the ideallic Platonic Forms, at least when it come to wine.
From a Western philisophical POV, the early Biblical text talks of a time where food and drink were naturally given to humanity……with no human involvement whatsoever in the process(and that being the ultimate felicity between grape and site that you mention). That could be the Platonic image that you mention (though I might call it Edenic).
After the fall, nature and humanity were placed at odds with one another….”Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat food from it all the days of your life. ”
And yet, later, this is another opportunity for another relationship, after the deluge, where God placed nature within human control, “Everything that lives and moves about will be food for you. Just as I gave you the green plants, I now give you everything.” And what, then, is the first thing that Noah did? He planted vine and made wine.
My point is simply this…while the Platonic Ideal is a fine point for wine, I think that it is, to some extent, another idea for a more Edenic ideal….where wine was truly natural.
And, yet, that is an ideal which we shall never achieve….and the best we can settle for is to have an achievable goal of a true marriage of grape, place, and humanity…..
Perhaps the creation of hybrids and even new varietals is the ultimate expression of this new marriage….but it still will not satisfy that Edenic desire that each of us holds within us of a perfect wine…..but sadly that no logner can be achieved. So we are faced with an unsatisfying choice…and, personally, I find that it is better to celebrate the human intervention in wine than to deny it.
It is not a process or philosophy that leads me to sleep well at night….for there is always something missing…but it is the best that I can do.
Thank you, Adam, for your very thoughtful comments. It goes without saying that in the hybridization process a human being is squarely in the center; the human being is using his or her intelligence to bring forth a vine that is potentially felicitously adapted to a given site. The aim of my project is to create a set of conditions that are perhaps vaguely Edenic – trying to obviate the need for heroic interventions (irrigation, pest control, gross manipulation of the wine itself). My hope is that the great diversity of genetic expression in these hybrids will also somehow create something like a degree of resonance to the complexity of Nature itself. But, we will just have to wait and see (and taste).
As an East coast grapegrower, the concept of hybridization is one that has dogged our industry from its inception. The pursuit of the highest-quality wines has led us to pursue pure vinifera to best reflect our sense of place. I applaud your drive to take this the one step further that your terroir demands.
On a purely practical level, how does one identify that the new hybridized seedling actually meets the criteria–minerality, aromatic expression–that is being sought? Not trying to be cynical, but with the breadth of diversity even from one seedling–and the need to make a wine from it–isn’t this more like Plato’s Cave of firelight images? How will you choose? And is it possible to make representative wine from each vine in 750 mL tanks?
Thanks so much for your pertinent question. As a practical matter, it seems essentially impossible to microvinify the fruit from a given vine, especially given the sheer number of vines under study. I believe that you can really look at this project in a few ways: Do you look for the outliers – the vines that are somehow really different looking from all the others. (Smaller berries, looser clusters, higher Brix, etc.) Or instead (or in addition), look at what a population of grapes is able to create. It might well be premature to know exactly what direction this project will go, except that I am certain that we are creating some conditions for something very interesting to potentially manifest itself. Even as a folly, undoubtedly it will be useful to someone at some time.
I wonder what Symphony or Ruby Cabernet, etc. might be like if they are grown in a cooler climate than Davis California?
I also wonder how many attempts at crossing two varieties before someone came up with Cabernet Sauvignon? Based upon the success of that one, I’d say there is at least a possibility of creating something that tastes good. I am not sure I like it better than CF or SB though.
I think that all vinifera varieties as well as non vinifera express dramatic differences depending on growing conditions themselves. Place still holds a powerful card in the hand to be dealt.
A very complex matrix to navigate. Keep me posted.
Undoubtedly Ruby Cab and Symphony are more interesting taken away, far away from Davis. Somehow in the deep recesses of memory, I recall tasting (or imagine tasting) a Ruby Cabernet that was actually quite good. But, I am in agreement with you (I think) that perhaps the contribution of the site (esp. if it is a great site) may well be a far more important determinant of wine quality than the variety itself. And again, remember that a population of crosses from two common parents will give you a range of qualities. The real question is whether it creates something more like a Phil Spector Wall of Flavor or a bunch of alley cats howling at the moon.
Randall, thank you for an interesting read.
I am not surprised your head hurts, mine hurts just reading this but it is fascinating and frustrating stuff.
I was going to say you are crazy but then realised we are probably crazy too based on where we grow Pinot Noir, which you also seem obsessed with.
Good on you for giving this project a try but if you stick with your thought that it is “an interesting intellectual exercise with a rather unforeseeable out outcome” then you may retain your sanity.
The more I learn about the genome of species, the more I realise how complex the interaction within the cells are. Then we add the layers of complexity with soils, climate, viticulture and winemaking and how each affects every little chemical pathway. The web of interactions is way too extreme to try and find some objective difference in an end product called wine which is judged on taste.
I know a little about heritability of traits in animals but you will know a lot more about the same in plants. Again the genome of Pinot Noir is actually longer than humans so we are not comparing simple grass varieties here – my head hurts already.
The conclusion I have drawn is that matching site and variety and clone is most important. If you get it wrong you can either change the variety or change the site. This is much easier than trying to create a new variety – but it may not be as much fun and that is very important. I sense you need a project like this – go for it!
Thanks so much for your comment. I wish you the very best of luck on your quixotic pinot project; you’re a better man than I, Gunga Doon. I’ve come to grasp in a very deep way that, as you suggest, the tackling of this project is far more significant than its ultimate success or lack thereof. It will have great meaning whether the wine turns out brilliantly or not. I am confident that something extraordinary will come of it, just no idea of precisely what that might be.
What’s old is New again. In 1963 and 1964, working for United Vintners at Asti, I spent both seasons with two assistants making small lots of wine from hybridized grapes. The hybridizer (whose name escapes me) wrote what we called the ‘Sex life of the Vine’ to explain the process. (As you explained, but in more detail). Unfortunately, the desired outcome was different from yours — they were looking for a grape which would be a high producing vine which made good wine. (Let’s not try to parse ‘good wine’ — we’ve been doing that for a long time and will continue longer). Interestingly, two years later, I was working in Canandaigua, NY and found that they had done similar work at Geneva — including some of the same crosses — and the results were fairly similar. I tried to get permission from United Vintners to share the information that I had with Geneva but could not get that permission. I have long since lost my copies of that work and don’t know where the old United Vintners files are but I would assume that you could get the information from Geneva. As I recall, it will reinforce some of your ideas and maybe adjust some others. Expect to see you tomorrow evening and we can discuss.
Will be great to see you, Bert, and to carry the discussion forward. I have not yet spoken to Andy Walker, nor shown him this piece. (Will do that this a.m.) I will be curious to know in more precise detail what he (or others) look for in making selections for “wine quality,” but this seems to be largely a function of suitability for a particular climate or site. Certainly the criteria for excellence in NY State are probably quite different than that for summer rainfall challenged CA. My guess is that those varieties that have the best stomatal regulation and are deepest rooting, may in some sense be the “best” at least in San Juan Bautista.
I am puzzled by your comment that an ideal vine lives a human life span. Varieties such as Riesling and chardonnay are at least several hundred years old. In other words, vines live much, much longer than a human. Some researchers think there are popular varieties that were bred in Roman times and passed down to us via cuttings. Further, most cultivated vinifera is self-pollinating. Self-pollinating is not a good evolutionary plan for the same reason we try to deter incest. In a vinifera vineyard, probably only 1 in 10,000 seeds are hybrids. As such, one might reasonably conclude that the great varieties are gifts send directly to us from heaven. Hybrids, the work of man, cannot compare. We should stick with the heavenly gifts.
I doubt this has been the accepted view of winemakers for the last 8000 years. From what I know of contemporary editions of the type, winemakers are a very practical and opportunistic bunch. One of the uniquely useful traits for winemakers is a sense of the grand time scale they operate within. The life force of a vine is not contained within the human temporal framework. It is easy to engage in a project that takes multiple generations to complete. A seed may not produce exceptional fruit for 7 or 8 years. The wine from that 8th leaf may not mature for another 10 years. Given that it may take 3 or 4 iterations to get the wine right, we are talking about a 50 year process to assess a single seed. The vine from that seed has the ability to live 1000 years, so 50 years is nothing to that vine. 50 years is a lifetime to a winemaker. Thus, wine making with terroir always demands its initiates abandon their private hopes of personal gratification simply for the privilege of participating in the glorious process with future generations will enjoy.
Glorious processes may sound romantic, but the reality is daunting. There is a popular saying that ‘when the pupil is ready, the master will appear’. In this case, the phrase goes ‘when the master is ready, the pupil will appear’.
Thank you for your comment. Perhaps I was somewhat imprecise in my language regarding vine and human life spans. I was simply suggesting that they are (at least normally) on the same order of magnitude, with the obvious caveat that grapes if well cared for can live longer. Though if one might believe the Bible or certain Taoist practitioners, human beings might as well be capable of living multiple centuries. However long my new vineyard in San Juan might live, it is my intention to make its life (and my own) a long one if possible. Certainly not pushing vines to excessive production (via dry-farming) and the maintenance of a vibrant soil microflora are two strategies to promote longevity.
I am in agreement that the plantation from self-pollinated seedlings is not a great plan for insuring genetic brilliance in the vineyard. Certainly, the use of hybridization will result in “healthier” and more viable plants, but whether they will be superior in terms of organoleptic characteristics is still a bit moot in my mind, as I am trying to suggest in the article.
Whether the emergence of a new variety is a gift from God or a gift from God through his messengers, the monks, who may likely have been doing their own experiments with grape hybridization (at least this is believed by Andy Walker), we will perhaps never know. But, as I have been trying to express through these various long (perhaps overlong) essays, my belief is that likely I will never discover a “superior” grape variety, i.e. an Uber-Pinot nor an Uber-Syrah. But there may well be a few interesting outcomes: There may well be a kind of quasi-Syrah or quasi-Grenache or a Grenache x Syrah that might well prove to be particularly well-suited to San Juan Bautista. But as you point out, this will likely devolve to my heir, Amélie, to discover for herself – should she have any interest in entering the vineyard business. But, what I am thinking is that the real interesting possibility for this project is not in the discovery of a great new grape variety, but rather in the creation of a truly original wine, unique to the site, which might only be possible by the extreme genetic diversity of the vineyard itself. At this point, it is really only a theoretical idea that this level of diversity will equate to complexity and flavor interest. My friend, Sashi Moorman, is undertaking to plant a pinot noir vineyard from (self-pollinated) seedlings. Granted, virtually all of these plants will be inferior to what we call pinot. But, it is not unreasonable to imagine that a different sort of flavor Gestalt might well emerge from the totality of these quasi-pinot vines. If such a thing were to happen, I would be greatly encouraged as far as my own potential success. We shall see.
Your photography of the Grenache seedlings growing out of that gorgeous pebble field is what I’ve been talking about for decades now. The vines must struggle, for this struggle is what makes for its unique terroir. Your wines rock!
Note that the picture may be emotionally evocative but the plants are having a pretty plush time of things (if you happen to be a grape seedling.) The picture was taken at Cornflower Nursery in Sacramento, where it is bloody hot at least when I was there last, but seedlings are under cover of shade in relatively high humidity – conditions that are optimal for good germination and growth. Human beings, at least this particular one, fare not quite so well in that environment.
Minerality is without question, the most vital of elements in good or great wines. This vital mineral note, ranges from subtle to huge and dominating in the wines we drink. Recently I have experienced good minerality in a modest Monferrato, and dominating high quality chalky textured minerality in a Montrose. These wines have nothing in common, I can only assume they both happen to be grown on suitable terroir and that the wines are made in a way that reflect their terroir. Surely the most important factors in vine to wine quality are terroir and sensitive wine growing/making methods. (This is hardly top secret information).
With this in mind I must confess that I struggle to understand the need for hybrid experimentation. If it improves scientific understanding of the vine, all good and well, or is it in search of flavour, quality etc.
From seeds to wine producing vineyard, a very ambitious plan indeed. It sounds massively expensive, Does all this extra work affect the the financial viability of the vines/wine.
The terroir being such an important factor in the quality and taste of a wine. How can one accurately gauge the quality of the grapes and wine produced. (hybrid or not, the site itself could dictate quality and taste).
I fear I am offering small minded critical comment,
Pete, Thanks so much for your comment. I am in complete agreement with you that the mineral component in wine is undoubtedly the key component to potential greatness. This element no doubt derives from both the potential of the vineyard site, as well as from the farming practice (the protection of soil microflora). It could well be argued that a great site will produce interesting (maybe even great) wine independent of the variety that is grown, though of course you would want to make sure that the variety is more or less adapted to the site. (Pinot noir in Fresno just won’t work.) For this reason, you will find for example great Chasselas wines in Switzerland. (Chasselas is a variety as neutral as the country in which it is grown.) Again, it is theoretically conceivable that the hybridization will yield us a few genotypes that may well be slightly better suited to the San Juan site than others (assuming that we have the wit to discover them). But the real bet is that perhaps the enormous diversity of genetic material – each vine will be genetically distinctive from every other – will give us something like a symphony of flavor, a level of complexity that would not be achievable through any other means. As importantly, it will be utterly distinctive. As far as the financial viability, yes this will take a very long time to really come into its own. But I’ve gotten to a certain point in my life that simply working to achieve financial success is really not my primary driver. Thanks again for taking the plunge.
Thanks for the response, I must confess that I did not consider the importance of genetic diversity, it does sound exciting and with mind boggling possibility.
I am sorry for bringing the vulgar subject of money into the discussion, it was not my intention to suggest that you have a financial motive, but to highlight the costs involved, (Decanter year 2036, hybrid vineyard creates new world mega cru, $500 per bottle). This is not your wine, but one created by some Napa wideboy on the back of your hard work, foresight and investment. Surely a possibility if symphony is achieved. Im not suggesting this matters now, but I do suggest it will be relevant to wine drinkers one day.
Call me selfish, but I would love to taste this symphony.
Thanks for your follow-up note. It is not at all vulgar to bring up the question of the financial feasibility of the willful creation of a “great” vineyard. It’s my belief that in general, any aspirations for “greatness,” whether in art or in winemaking exist in a world far from the one of monetary calculation. I’m making this up, but I believe that for 98% of the time that vineyards great and small have existed, profitability (or more accurately, major profitability) has never really entered the equation. Until recently. And really, apart from the great chateaux in Bordeaux, and the very special crus of Burgundy and perhaps Barolo, profitability for most of us in the business, continues to remain pretty elusive. Your prescient comment about San Juan vintage 2036 sends a shiver down my spine, but adjusting for inflation, maybe your price tag is a little too low. Let us hope for a symphony. Who knows, stranger things have happened.
Did Dr. Walker say anything about breeding for Pierce’s Disease resistance?
I know that Andy Walker has been working on breeding for Pierce’s resistant vines (keeping as much vinifera in them as possible) and I believe that he has come up with a few selections that are resistant though I can’t really speak to the wine quality. I had not really thought to use any of his genetic material in my own mix, but suppose I should be open-minded enough to at least consider it.